Behind the Headlines Australia: A Nation Changes Direction

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A Nation Changes Direction

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Australia is truly at the proverbial crossroads. Popularly referred to as the land "down under," it is the only continent that is a single country.

At the dawn of a new millennium, as they begin to celebrate 100 years of political independence from Great Britain, Australians are contemplating an uncertain future, looking to Asia more than to the mother country and the United States. This redirection will impact not only Australia itself, but Britain and America, in the years to come.

Australia's international priorities reflect the ever-changing world scene, particularly when it comes to economic and political power.

At the turn of the 20th century, after more than a century of British colonial rule, the Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901 as a dominion of the British Empire, alongside Canada, soon thereafter to be joined by New Zealand and South Africa.

Discovered by British sea captain James Cook in 1770 and originally designated as a penal colony, Australia has played an important role in history, disproportionate to her small population (now about 18 million). This important "gate," a prophesied blessing given to some of the descendants of Abraham by Almighty God (Genesis 22:17; 24:60), has proved of vital strategic importance to Britain and the United States for over a century.

Australia aids its mother country

Before independence, Australian troops fought alongside other British imperial troops in the Sudan in 1896 and against the Boers in South Africa from 1899 to 1902. After independence, they were to play an even greater role in the two world wars.

From the beginning of World War I, in 1914, Australia contributed greatly to the efforts of the British Empire and Commonwealth in defeating the Central European empires and their allies. Its political leaders universally supported the war effort, and the nation was positive and upbeat throughout the war, psychologically and physically prepared for the conflict.

Some 330,000 Australian troops served in the Allied war effort. About 60,000 died, and 165,000 were wounded. When taking into account Australia's small population at that time, it can truly be said that few nations made an equivalent sacrifice. Some believed there was little need for Australia to get involved in the first place, since she was thousands of miles away from most of the conflict. In the words of Winston Churchill, it was as though some ancient ancestral voice were calling them to action-and they all came.

Members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) made their greatest sacrifice in the Dardenelles campaign in 1915. The day of the landing at Gallipoli, April 25, became a day of national reverence still honored by Australians three generations later.

Before Gallipoli, in the early months of the war, Australian troops had captured neighboring German New Guinea from the enemy, and the Australian vessel Sydney had sunk the German cruiser Emden near the Cocos Islands.

Later in World War I Australians fought valiantly in some of the fiercest battles in France and also in Palestine, where the Australian cavalry contributed to the defeat of Turkish forces.

World War II threatens

World War II saw similar sacrifice, though this time Australia itself was directly threatened. The northern city of Darwin was bombed by Japanese aircraft, and intense fighting took place on the island of New Guinea.

Before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor that extended World War II to the Pacific, Australians were already supporting the British in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The Royal Australian Air Force contributed greatly to the defense of the British Isles during the Battle of Britain. The Australian Navy operated in the Mediterranean, and Australian troops fought in the long North African campaign. The successful Allied defense of Tobruk would not have been possible without Australian troops.

Australia's greatest wartime setback took place shortly after Pearl Harbor, when 15,000 Australian troops became prisoners of the Japanese after the fall of the British-ruled island of Singapore, a major turning point in World War II and in the history of the British Empire.

It was the greatest defeat the empire had suffered in modern history. Psychologically, it was devastating, made worse because seemingly invincible Europeans had been defeated by Asians, who at that time were erroneously perceived as backward. It foreshadowed the withdrawal of the colonial powers from Asia and the ascendancy of the Asians themselves, even though the British did retake Singapore near the end of the war.

Some 30,000 Australians died in World War II, and 65,000 were wounded. So, once again in proportion to their small population, Australians made an enormous contribution to the Allied effort, suffering substantial losses.

Australia shifts its focus

World War II also saw Australia changing direction. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, realizing that Great Britain was preoccupied in Europe, Australian Labour prime minister John Curtin declared: "I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free from any pangs about our traditional links of friendship to Britain."

Australia was to remain under the British crown and a member of the British Commonwealth, but her defense priorities were now with the United States, which would emerge after World War II as the greatest power in the world. In February 1942 Curtin defied British prime minister Winston Churchill by insisting that Australian troops, victorious in the Middle East, should return to Australia for home defense rather than go to Burma to support the British against Japan.

Australia, long important to Britain with its huge empire in the Far East, now became equally important to the United States. Gen. Douglas MacArthur made his headquarters first in Melbourne and then in Brisbane. The Australian Navy assisted in the American victory in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the two nations fought alongside each other in numerous battles throughout the Pacific War.

A country transformed

Both world wars boosted Australia's economy, which didn't do so well during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Australia's population at that time actually declined, with emigration exceeding immigration for the first and only time in its history.

Australia's economy changed dramatically toward the end of World War II, with greater industrialization and a lessening of the importance of agricultural production. Affluence followed for most Australians in the postwar years, giving them one of the highest standards of living in the world.

The nation was to change even more after victory in the Pacific. In 1946 immigration policies were altered. Instead of looking to Great Britain and Ireland for most of its newcomers, Australia encouraged massive immigration from mainland Europe for almost 30 years. The ethnic composition of the country shifted with the arrival of some 100,000 new people a year. It was to be transformed even more dramatically after 1973 when the "white Australia" policy, introduced in the first decade of this century, was ended and preference was given to Asians seeking to enter the country.

Ties with Great Britain continued to weaken, though Australians continued to remain loyal to Queen Elizabeth as queen of Australia. In the mid-'60s, when the British people themselves were enamored of socialism and many people tired of the royal family, a British cartoon at the time showed the queen's husband, Prince Philip, commenting to his wife: "Never mind, dear. You're still top of the pops in Australia."

The British national anthem, "God Save the Queen," was shared by Australians until a few years ago, and the Union Jack still remains a part of the Australian national flag.

Trade ties with the United States and Japan became more important than those with Britain, especially after Britain entered the European Common Market in 1973. Australians and New Zealanders fought alongside the United States in Vietnam, as they had done in Korea. The difference in Vietnam was that Britain was missing.

Strengthening ties with Asia

From the 1970s until the present, ties with Asia have become increasingly more important to Australians as their trade with the continent to the north has boomed. The century that began with heavy emphasis on ties with Britain, changing to close relations with the United States in the middle of the century, is ending with a commitment to Asia, reflecting changing power structures on the world scene.

Australia's last Labour government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Paul Keating, announced its intention to remove Queen Elizabeth as Australia's head of state. This would show Australia's friends in Asia that her future was with them and that Australia now was an Asian country and not an outpost of a European colonial power.

This was not the whole story. A previous Labour government, under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, was dismissed in 1975 by the queen's representative in Australia, the governor-general, a move that rekindled republican sympathies in a country that in the 1920s had been radical.

Anti-British sentiment also increased when Great Britain joined the Common Market. The mother country began to trade more and more with other European nations and less with Australia and New Zealand. Despite the fact that Australian farmers were left with diminished export markets, most of them, as supporters of the Australian Country Party, remain committed to Australia's constitutional monarchy.

Another factor in Australia's shift of orientation is the country's dramatic demographic change. During the last 50 years Australia has effectively changed hands. Once dominated by people of mostly British and Protestant descent, Australia's large Irish Catholic community has played an increasingly important role in the last few decades. Now descendants of postwar European immigrants are more powerful. Soon those of Asian descent will also be members of the Australian establishment.

Political change

All these factors contribute to the cries for a republic. Americans should note that many Australians do not want a republic on the American model. Australian politicians like a stronger form of centralized government and so will likely opt for simply replacing the queen with a local figurehead, probably a government-appointed senior politician. Of course, not all Australians are keen to see a republic created. A substantial number still retain a considerable loyalty to the British crown.

This may, however, foreshadow instability in the next century. It's hard to find a former British territory that has changed to a republican form of government and has successfully preserved traditional freedoms and the rule of law. The Commonwealth has its share of unstable nations that are fairly frequent victims of military coups and dictatorships, with the seemingly inevitable corrupt politicians.

Australians, who have enjoyed more than 200 years of stability under the crown-including almost a century of independence under their present constitution, the third-oldest written constitution in the world-may find they suffer problems similar to other Commonwealth nations if and when they dispense with the services of the House of Windsor.

They may also find that their cultural identity changes. Severing the final tie with the mother country at a crucial time in the nation's history may lead to an increasing Asianization of the nation. Looking ahead, one wonders just how Australia can avoid becoming an Asian nation in every sense of the term, rather than a Western nation in Asia.

Meanwhile, economic problems in Australia are leading to defense cuts. It is doubtful that Australians today would be able to contribute substantially to any major conflict as they did in two previous global wars.

Australia, a country of great importance to the English-speaking world for more than a century to whom we in the Western world owe so much, is changing rapidly in a direction that emphasizes the erosion that has taken place in the unity of the former Allied powers, the nations of the British Commonwealth and the United States.

Some may see these developments as progress, but history and prophecy suggest otherwise. The weakening of ties between the nations of the English-speaking world, an alliance that has preserved the freedoms of the Western world throughout this century, is further proof that God is breaking the pride of their power (Leviticus 26:18-19), a prophesied punishment for the sins of the people. GN